True Grit— via the Coen brothers– represents a landmark in the oeuvre of Ethan and Larry as the first pure genre movie they’ve attempted together. Even Blood Simple only dabbles in genre cinema; True Grit on the other hand can (and arguably should) be treated and appreciated as an uncomplicated and honest contemporary Western movie. If it seems I’m damning the film with faint praise, recall that there is no rule written which dictates that complexity equates quality. The Coens aren’t holding up a veil to True Grit as they did with No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man; they are, taking a note from the third act, clearly stating their intentions.
Maybe part of the film’s simplicity stems from its lineage. Even the Coen brothers cannot obfuscate the heart of the story told in Charles Portis’ 1968 novel and immediately elevated to iconic stature the following year by Harry Hathaway’s and Marguerite Roberts’ screen adaptation with John Wayne; this is a straightforward and earnest tale, not one for ambiguities and grey morality. For the detachment of cineastes who see in the Coens a contumelious, self-satisfied demeanor, True Grit could lead to their conversion from detractors to enthusiasts; there is no winking or smirking to be seen from the other side of the lens here, just impeccably forged cinema from two gifted directors. For those requiring no persuasion, True Grit marks the latest win for the sibling duo and a tonal departure from their recent successes.
True Grit could be described as a timeless narrative about the pursuit justice and honor; I rather think that it’s not story itself that’s timeless but the cinematic tradition from which the particulars of the adventure derives. Today, Westerns are rare, great ones more so, likely based on a belief that modern audiences outright reject such films as a rule. It could well be that one of True Grit‘s most remarkable qualities lies in its unfussed state; the Coens have transplanted a classic Western yarn from the cinemas of decades past and boldly presented it to a vastly different viewing public without teasing or manipulating it more than necessary, if at all. That sort of move requires a certain amount of chutzpah by default, something the brothers are not in short supply of.
For those unfamiliar with True Grit‘s core quest, the introduction to fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross and the one-eyed, pot-bellied Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (played, respectively, by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld and the beloved Jeff Bridges) leads, immediately, into Mattie’s mission to exact some retribution on Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for the murder of her father. To achieve her ends, Mattie shops around the local constabulary to find lawmen she can move to aid her cause, and she’s directed to Cogburn, a veteran U.S. Marshall whom she eventually seeks to employ for his “true grit”, his determination and indomitability. Joined by Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf, they set out to find Chaney, as well as “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), whose gang Chaney’s traveling with, and either shoot them down or bring them back to civilization to face judgment.
For its cowboy heroics, True Grit largely comes down to the relationship that forms between Mattie and Rooster, portraying the two as kindred spirits; a confrontation with Chaney and Pepper marks the film’s destination, but the journey up to that point is the more important part. Unsurprisingly, so too does the film come down to matters of performance over matters of choreography and action. Steinfeld, like Mattie, finds herself operating in an adult’s world and must contend with the wills and talents of more experienced performers. Previously an unknown, Steinfeld meets the challenge of acting alongside the likes Bridges, Damon, and Brolin and arguably surpasses each of them (though they’re all responsible for some stellar character work here as well); it’s easy to imagine her drawing on the trials of Mattie for inspiration, but wherever Steinfeld’s incredible performance came from, it’s one for the ages.
Of course, the other major player here is Bridges, and as Steinfeld can be seen as stealing her co-stars’ spotlight, one might say that Bridges has usurped the mantle of his character from John Wayne himself. Bridges has a talent for stepping into a role and becoming invisible that belies his own larger-than-life image; he’s not playing Cogburn as much as he is Cogburn, the embodiment of the gruff and somewhat incorrigible lawman of the old West. Playing a role like Cogburn comes with its own pressures built in, but Bridges is a pro and he makes fashioning his rendition of the character look easy. Pepper, Damon, and Brolin have easier tasks, I think, but that’s not to downplay how good each of them is– Pepper and Brolin don’t have much time on screen to share with the rest of the cast, so they utilize their time wisely and build off of the dialogue surrounding their villains to make us feel like we already know their characters.
True Grit‘s plot unravels against a rugged backdrop captured in marvelous detail by Roger Deakins. Unlike the Coens’ cast, Deakins isn’t out to draw any attention to himself– rather, he’s focused on staging, lightning, and shooting each scene crisply and succinctly, giving each moment weight and impact. If Deakins’ aesthetic can be describe in a word, it’s “clean”; from horseback gunfights to nighttime shootouts, Deakins photographs every moment, every action, fully and without any sense of vanity. There’s an old-school sensibility to Deakins’ style that enhances each frame and makes the story feel more vivid as a result; like the Coens, he’s not fussing about in his task, and subsequently his craftsmanship becomes all the more admirable.
The Coens aren’t really known for tipping their hands or wearing their emotions on their sleeves, so in its earnestness True Grit denotes a unique entry in their career. Taken at face value, they’ve simply created a great piece of entertainment and possibly proven that Westerns can still work for mainstream audiences. For certain, past themes echo throughout the bones of their film– notably the depiction of a time and a culture slowly encroaching upon its expiration date– yet it’s the examination of Ross and Cogburn that acts as the basis for the film’s existence.